Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An Anabaptist Heritage

When I began my radio career, I was told to imagine that I was talking to a single person, conversationally.  The “singular” person would ideally be the stereotype of the target demographic the radio station was hoping to attract.  For example, in Las Vegas, the prime audience for our advertisers was females between the ages of 18-34.  So my ideal imaginary listener was probably a 25 year old female, single, fun-loving, without children. 
                Over the years, this form of vocal delivery became second nature, and if I was to think of an image of the person to whom I was speaking, it would be vague, indistinguishable, faceless and nameless.  The sociologist George Herbert Mead came up with the concept of the “Generalized Other”, which might be an apt description, for even though I was talking to a single person, that person represented the common understanding of all other individuals just like her, so there was a universal element to my delivery.  Language obviously was central to this universality; however there was no true individuality, either from me or reciprocated from my audience.  Everyone in this exchange engaged in a layer of culture that was superficial and concentric, for although I was talking to one person, I was also talking to society at large, in the language of that society (Collins, 1994) (Connolly, 2002). 
Radio and media attempt to turn the concentric around and bring the superficial or surface elements of culture back to the individual, instead of out from the individual.  Either way, this paradigm is illusory to authentic identity.  I cannot possibly reveal any sort of my true nature through this mode of communication, nor can the listener learn anything about her identity through the reception of this message from the radio.  However, if it is the authentic that one is attempting to avoid, then media, entertainment and other forms of escapism are the perfect avenues. 
The example of my past career is a part of a narrative, a layer of my narrative, therefore a part of me, but only on a surface level.  William E. Connolly talks about layers of perception, thinking and culture, while James McClendon refers to narrative ethics as being the only true way to see morality; that is, to see it as a story.  I find no dissonance in combining the two concepts in the form of narratives having their own layers.  Perhaps the media/career aspect of my life was an outer layer, one that was most susceptible to adjustments from the elements.  It was unprotected, constantly changing, having no real substance, completely transparent (Connolly, 2002) (McClendon, 2002). 
An Anabaptist Heritage
This essay is an attempt to articulate the process in which I now find myself; the process of returning to the innermost layers of my narrative to define what living a good, ethical life means to me in the context of the part of the universal from which my story is shaped.  I am learning to acknowledge my heritage, my Anabaptist heritage, because I have reached a point where that acknowledgement no longer frightens me.  It has become painfully obvious to me that the main reason people run from true identity is the perceived sacrifices that they believe they might have to make if they peel back their layers.  The outermost protection that they think they have is often the most harmful element of their lives.  This is where we start to hear clichés about the difficulty of leaving one’s “comfort zone”. 
When Christ talked about denying self, he wasn’t referring to the denial of who we are, he was trying to help us remove the construct of society, the caricature, the costume, the distortion, that was covering up our true identity.  It was only in that discovery of identity that the divine could be found, and therefore the love that could be extended to others.  Some traditions, such as Hinduism, may refer to this in different ways, such as the removal of the ego standing in the way of Atman.  Understanding heritage in the context of narrative is to understand a part of the life-giving process.
Heritage clearly has a tie to the past, but what is that tie?  Isn’t it a coming out of an endless set of contexts, going further and further back, an eternal sense of the ever present now that transforms into the future?  Our role in the heritage is to take the past as a starting point, a grounding and a place where we’ve grown out of the universal God /grain of life, and then transform that past into the present where we find the embodied self. 
Heritage and Ethics
At Eastern Mennonite University, studying under Dr. Christian Early, I was told that “the better we understand who we are, the more grounded our ethics will be” (Early C., Ethics Lecture, 2010).  There is a tension in that statement, a conflict of opposites, because self-discovery through a look at heritage will involve pain as well as pleasure.  But pain, adversity, uncertainty, even suffering, are often necessary parts of forward movement, for they create questions, and it is through questioning that we discover. 
This discovery of self, at any level, can only be navigated by the embodied self.  Referencing Antonio Damasio, the feelings and emotions that influence and guide us are received through the body, but I must question from where they originate (Damasio, 2003).  Could many of these feelings arrive out of the body itself, out of a past life?  I’m not referring to reincarnation, but to the connection that heritage brings into our lives.  To state this in a somewhat scientific manner, we embody the genetics of our heritage; we carry the blood of those who came before and their actual DNA.  Traced back far enough, we could even say that we are the embodied community of all humanity.  The parallels between the universal soul/consciousness/Atman/Brahman/Allah/God and this embodiment are not to be missed. 
Recently, I’ve been especially interested in my mother’s family, as the mother symbol has fascinated me in the process of personal study and discovery.  Carl Jung was the one who opened my eyes to the effect of the anima, the female/mother archetype in the mind, and the role that it plays in a life narrative.  I’ve always been aware that my mother’s lineage has provided me with the greatest family mentor figures in my life, even though I do realize that this is not the case for everyone.  However, the insights of Jung, and the further ideas of attachment theory as introduced to me by AnneMarie Early, have only increased my focus on the maternal (Jung, 1976) (Early A., 2010).  My mother’s maiden name is Jantzi, and her mother’s maiden name is Swartz.  Both families came out of the Alsace Lorraine region of Europe/Switzerland.  The Swartz were Jewish, and it is only recently that I’ve realized my bloodline connection to the Jewish people.  It was in the 1700’s that the Swartz converted to the Amish lifestyle to avoid the rampant Anti-Semitism that has had varying degrees of intensity in Europe for hundreds of years.    From the Amish, they gradually evolved their thinking to the identifiably Anabaptist tradition that we know today.  Despite hoping to escape persecution for their Jewish beliefs, they encountered it anyway with their pacifistic Anabaptist stance (Swartz). 
So, my mother’s parents met and married in the context of a close knit community of Anabaptists that included the Swartz and Jantzi people.  These people had traveled to America together, and set up a life and a style of worship together.  It is said that they were known to “share earthly possessions, as well as joys and sorrows” (Swartz).  They were a people who loved life, and knew how to work hard and intelligently, while desiring to better the world around them. 
A Narrative of Service
The restless energy of service is evident in my more recent family history.  I remember my grandparents as being full of the kind of life and laughter that can only come out of that knowledge of the self that desires to care for the humanity of the other.  This energy was transferred to their children, and is evident in my mother, who has served as a nurse, pastoral counselor, and care-giver to her parents at their life’s end, as well as to my sister and I in our youth, and most recently to me as an adult following my near-fatal car accident.  My mother’s work has always poured out of a life filled with the highest of moral standards, love and the desire to work for people rather than the material.  This is a common theme throughout my maternal family narrative. 
The energy of service is evident in my mother’s brother, Vernon Jantzi, who is a familiar name and figure on the Eastern Mennonite University campus and community, as well as the various communities with which he has participated through his years with Mennonite Central Committee.  Vernon has taken on the role of a sage figure to me.  He embodies all that is good about the Anabaptist tradition, and is a model as to what it means to live out, through the powerful practices of virtue spoken of by McClendon, a morally upright ethical life; one that has to be taken as a narrative to be understood (McClendon, 2002).  His direct actions for peace, such as his work to help establish the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding on EMU’s campus, resonates both forward, back and horizontally in his own heritage.  By horizontally, I mean that his peaceful actions are congruent.  His narrative is consistent, authentic, and reflects his own path to discovery through heritage.  His various roles of uncle, husband, father, grandfather, teacher, mentor, scholar, leader, activist, university administrator and advisor are all in line with a universal love ethic.  He is a man who knows himself, in the truest sense of knowledge. 
My mother’s sister Sharon and Sharon’s husband Herb show a similar narrative in their lives.  They have a passion for the African continent, and their children were born in Ethiopia during their nearly two decades of service to that country.  Their approach to missions, like Vernon’s has never been of the “beneficiary” mentality; meaning they don’t practice a mission characteristic of hubris.  They look to learn from others more than they hope to teach others. 
This humility in service recognizes what McClendon refers to as “Perspectivism”, which I interpret as a humble pluralistic acceptance and acknowledgment of different shades on what comprises truth.  It is a realization that the truth cannot be simply implanted into the narrative of those whom we’re serving, but must be looked for out of that narrative of the other (McClendon, 2002).  I believe it was Mohandas Gandhi who once said that we should hold others to the highest standard of their own traditions.  I don’t think Gandhi meant for the truth to be relativistic, but that we should recognize and validate the ethical narrative of those we encounter.  This recognition of pluralistic narratives can only come out of a security with our own narrative, so when we practice Gandhi’s principle, we practice self-discovery and a discovery of the other.  This is an ethic of community, a multi-sided narrative of life. 
A Love Lesson
I agree with the idea that the primary narrative of humanity is a love story.  I credit Dr. Christian Early with that idea, and its corollary of the tragic element in love.  The past couple of years have seen numerous life-shaping rifts in time (spoken of by Connolly) that have revealed tragedy in my own narrative, but through the tragedy has come a greater love and awareness (Connolly, 2002).  One rift, which I have mentioned in a previous writing, was a near-fatal car accident in the summer of 2009.  Another rift was a unique intellectual awakening that I can clearly see in hindsight as I look back on the spring of 2010.  It was a period where I encountered the writings of Richard Rohr, and was introduced to the concept of mystical non-dualism for the first time (Rohr, 2009).  That rift was followed by the discarding of labels and beliefs that were blocking my own vision of identity.  There was a great deal of clarity immediately following my car accident.  There was a great deal more with that second rift this past spring.  Both rifts involved a letting go, and I’ve found that the more I can discard attachments, the more I am able to comprehend concepts, ideas, history, knowledge, and the more I am enabled in the examination of heritage. 
In a way, I may have more questions now than I’ve ever had in my life, but I consider that a sign that I’m able to name what I’m trying to answer.  When, for example, I’m able to recognize and therefore question why I’ve always been restless, I can look to the heritage of my family narrative for some of the answers.  Perhaps the restlessness, pain, struggle and redemption of the Jewish people is encoded in my DNA.  The Jews are a historically restless people both literally and figuratively, but they have also been commanded and called out by God to an ethical narrative that incorporates love, service, and humility.  The idea of homeland is very important to them, but it is something that has been evasive and insecure throughout their history.  Now, we can see their pain exemplified in a tragic way by their desperate struggle to retain their homeland by the harming of others.  This goes against the divine, and will only involve more tragedy in their cultural narrative unless they can learn to recognize that their calling out does not place them on a morally, ethically or physically superior level to the rest of humanity, but requires them to be an example of how to practice validation and recognition of all who live. 
No longer do I run from who I am.  Now, I embrace my heritage, on all sides of my family.  I have given a slight glimpse into my maternal past as it is with me on the path I’m currently walking.  I am becoming ever more aware of the pull that service has on me, and I can observe the next part of my story taking shape.  It wasn’t and isn’t inevitable that this story would or will turn out positive.  I fully place myself and my idea of God in a paradigm with no deep structure.  I like the idea that “God” is what holds the intention of the universe, but not the agenda.   And yes, I can see that we are fundamentally a result of our connections (Early C., Ethics Lecture, 2010).  Heritage is a starting point, not an ending point.  Heritage is not a definition.  Heritage is a place where we’re grounded in the divine.  Heritage is the root planted in Krishna, Brahman, Allah, God, Yahweh.  

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Early, A. (Performer). (2010, December 6). Attachment Theory Lecture. Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA.
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Swartz, M. Swartz History.

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